[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. 12 Years a Slave opens today in limited release.]
It’s easy to draw the lines regarding slavery in America as “good” and “evil” where the enslavers were evil and everyone else was good. When the issue of slavery culminated in the Civil War, the battle lines were drawn between the “good” north and the “evil” south. As long as we know someone else is to blame for the evil in the world, then we remove all culpability from ourselves. With unflinching, heart-wrenching honesty, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave shows that the issue of slavery wasn’t as simple as black-and-white. There were shades of grey regarding slavery even among slaves. The vileness of slavery isn’t in question, and McQueen shows it in all its ugliness. He shows slavery to the point of how it not only wears away a person’s body, but also their identity and even their soul. The exploration in 12 Years a Slave is into the culpability of all men and women, free and slave, in this unquestionable shame.